Saturday, September 29, 2007

Out of the Past

Out of the Past posterIn "Shades of Black and Brown: Visions of Mexico and Mexican-Americans in 1940s Film Noir", Eric Enders comments that for Jacques Tourneur's classic noir Out of the Past "Mexico provide[s] a momentary escape from the harsh realities of urban America," and that the movie's protagonists, Robert Mitchum's Jeff Markham and Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat, spend much of the film "trying to, as Greer’s character puts it, 'go back to Acapulco and start all over as if nothing had ever happened.'"

Again, then, Latin America functions as a place of escape, a potential utopia untouched by the law or, as a consequence, by crime. Enders quotes James Naremore's observation that "during the 1940s, noir characters visited Latin America more often than any other locale, usually because they wanted to find relief from repression." But as we've seen in the neo-noir The Long Goodbye (let alone Touch of Evil), things are seldom that simple. Noir characters may be endlessly crossing borders, as Naremore also observes: "to visit Latin America, Chinatown, or the 'wrong' parts of the city" ("American Film Noir" 15), but in part thanks to such endless criss-crossing, they also destabilize those borders and the comfortable distinctions such frontiers are supposed to uphold.

Precisely such a destabilization is played out within one of the Mexican scenes in this film. Markham has gone down to Acapulco in search of Moffat on the order of seedy gambling kingpin Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Moffat, Sterling's mistress, had fled leaving him with a bullet in the stomach and $40,000 poorer. Markham catches up with the broad but soon falls for her, and so after a brief paradaisical romance in and around the Mexican resort, they determine to flee onwards, to ensure that Sterling can't trace and come after them. On the day of their departure, Markham hears a knock on his hotel room door. Opening it expecting his visitor to be Moffat, he discovers instead Sterling plus henchman Joe Stephanos. Markham is forced to do a visible double take: he'd expected something quite different on the other side of the door. But instead of romance and the promise of escape, he finds trouble and a reminder of all he had thought to have left behind. In short, you never quite know what's on the other side of a border, behind the door.

And though it might be nice to imagine, as Moffat suggests, that Latin America represents the one site of relief and sunshine (when she and Markham first meet in an Acapulco cantina, she is described as "coming out of the sun"), noir trades in uncertainty, leaving no respite even far from home. After all, can we even believe Moffat's utopian promises? Her line to Markham is just one among many: she's endlessly stringing him along, and as likely as not to turn on him once again in an instant. The discourse of Latin utopianism is figured clearly as yet another element in the complex web that North American characters weave among themselves.

Out of the Past still
So the point is not (as Enders suggests) whether noir movies portray Latin America benignly or otherwise. The point is how they self-consciously present discourses of Latin Americanism (or, here, also either small town or rural contentment) as one more means by which US modernity consoles itself with the possibility of an outside, even as it destroys any such division between inside and out.

Image Link: a very extensive collection of stills.
YouTube Link: the scene in which Moffat declares "I want to go back to Mexico".

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Friday, September 28, 2007

The Long Goodbye

Long Goodbye posterPrivate Eye Philip Marlowe is woken in the small hours by his hungry cat at the opening of Robert Altman's neo-noir The Long Goodbye. He tries to fix him something to eat, but the cat will have nothing but his preferred brand of food. Marlowe stumbles out to the all-night supermarket, taking an order for brownie mix from the hippie girls who live next door, but the store is all out of Coury-brand catfood. He buys another brand and tries to fool the cat by spooning it into an empty Coury-brand can. Unfooled, the cat slips away and out of Marlowe's life through a catflap marked "el porto del gato." The pet is, it seems, some kind of Anglo-Hispanic hybrid.

This scene is intercut with shots of a guy in a sportscar, curious cuts to his face and bruised knuckles, heading out of an exclusive Malibu enclave. It turns out he's making his way to his old friend Phil's: Terry Lennox has a favor to ask; can Marlowe drive him down to Tijuana? They jump in the car and Marlowe drops Lennox at the border. "You take care of yourself," Marlowe says. "Don't worry about me," Lennox replies. "Hey, vaya con Dios, huh?" he adds before himself slipping away and also out of Marlowe's life.

For the next we know, Terry is dead, an apparent suicide in a small Mexican town somewhere to the South. His death seems to clear up a mystery: who killed Lennox's wife that night that he called in on Marlowe to help him across the border. But it opens up a new question: what happened to the suitcase full of money ($355,000 in all) that a bunch of LA hoods had charged Lennox with couriering down to Mexico City?

Marlowe doesn't believe that Lennox killed either his wife or himself. Nor does he have much clue as to the location of the money, though the hoods soon turn up on his doorstep convinced that he does. Adding to the confusion, a woman from the same Malibu community wants someone to track down her husband, Roger Wade, an alcoholic blocked writer who has also disappeared.

Fast forward. Wade returns but only to drown himself in the Pacific surf after yet another argument with his wife Eileen. Soft on Marlowe, it seems, Eileen suggests that it was Roger who had done away with Mrs Lennox. The gangsters turn the screws in their efforts to recover their mislaid cash, but the money shows up just in time to save our hero from yet another loss, as a knife-wielding side-kick is about to cut off his private dick. On the street outside, Eileen Wade doesn't want to stop her convertible long enough to talk. And it turns out she's moved out of her beach house in something of a hurry.

Long Goodbye still
Everyone, the police, the hoods, even the widow, is now happy that things are resolved. Everyone but Marlowe. And to find the truth he sets out again for Mexico... where he indeed discovers his old pal Terry, swinging in a hammock and apparently unconcerned about the trouble Marlowe had undergone while defending his good name back in LA. And Marlowe decides that he has had enough of such fair-weather friends.

At the time this film came out, Nina Van Pallandt, the Danish actress who plays Eileen Wade, was best known as the mistress of infamous hoaxster Clifford Irving. Irving, like Roger Wade something of a failed writer, had forged Howard Hughes's autobiography. And once the hoax started to unravel, it was Van Pallandt who "drove the nail in his credibility coffin by insisting that Irving had been vacationing in Mexico with her at the time he was supposedly picking Hughes' brains". So in life as in filmic fiction, a trip to Mexico proves to be a fraudster's undoing.

As with the cat slipping through his "porto del gato," the fantasy of losing oneself in Latin America, disappearing, hiding out, faking or actually committing suicide, is a constant temptation for those who live the North. It's as though the region offered a succession of dead-ends, false finishes, hidden refuges. The dramatic ending to The Long Goodbye suggests, however, that such farewells can only be postponed; they drag out, but in the end even in Mexico a sort of justice can be done.

YouTube Link: the movie trailer.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007


One of the strange things about travel South of the Border is that it can have one of two contrasting effects: either reveal the real you, stripped down in elemental conflict with destiny (no better example of this than The Wages of Fear, but see also The Treasure of the Sierra Madre); or it can be an opportunity for reinvention and masquerade (Goofy becoming gaucho in Saludos Amigos, for example). Sometimes, of course, reinvention and rediscovery become one and the same: Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager, for instance, takes on a false identity in her cruise to Rio precisely in order to reconnect with her true desires; in the end she is Camille Beauchamps, even if she has to leave that identity behind again when she returns North.

And this paradox, that Latin America is the site simultaneously of both truth and falsity, is not so dissimilar from the paradox (which I mentioned in discussing Tycoon) that it instantiates both nature and culture at the same time.

Borderline posterIn Borderline, which is a sort of film noir lite, Mexico is the site of duplicity and pretence. Which is why the film rather goes against the conventions of noir, and becomes more a comedy of errors.

Claire Trevor plays Madeleine Haley, and ambitious young cop sent south to infiltrate and investigate a gang of drug-traffickers headed by one Pete Ritchie. She takes on the name "Gladys LaRue" and the character of, first, dancehall floozy and, then, gangster's moll to gain access to the formidable Ritchie, played by Raymond Burr. Yet she ends up kidnapped by another gang boss, who sends her North with a consignment of drugs in the company of hardman Johnny Macklin. Little does she realize, however, that Macklin is, like her, a cop in disguise, tender-hearted Johnny McEvoy under his tough-guy exterior.

In an incident-packed trip through Mexico, "LaRue" and "Macklin" tell each other tall stories about their delinquent pasts as cold-hearted murderer, in LaRue's tale, or in prison or on the lam, "barbequeing the bloodhounds they sent after me," in Macklin's. They take a certain delight in these exaggerated narratives. No wonder Macklin says "Sometimes I get the feeling that you're not telling me everything." "You know, I get the same feeling about you," replies LaRue. But these lies are fun, and especially for Haley/LaRue it's a refreshing change from her role as perpetually spoken-over and unheard subordinate woman in the USA.

But the border itself is the moment of truth, at which their identities suddenly unravel as Haley tries to have Macklin arrested, and McEvory likewise tries to turn LaRue in to the authorities. "You suggest that I cooperate...?" exclaims Haley. "Just who is this girl?" asks McEvoy. And each is as upset with the other as though they were really criminals betrayed by an informer. They have over-identified with their roles, but are shocked by the other's role-playing.

For they don't realize that, in this case at least, the performance has to stop at the borderline.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dr. No

Dr No posterAt the opening of Dr. No, the first official Bond film, the famous shot down a gun barrel and signature tune are followed by silhouettes swaying to a generic salsa beat and then a calypso placing us in the film's Jamaican setting. "See that, Captain?" side-kick Quarrel points out early on: "That there's the Caribbean." For the birth of the most famous film franchise in history, and also the location from which Ian Fleming wrote the original Bond novels, was but a hop, skip, and a stuntman's jump away from where Columbus first encountered the New World.

Moreover, in one of the most iconic images ever recorded on celluloid, pioneer Bond girl Ursula Andress literally arises from the sea, washed up from the waters after a life spent drifting around the globe: "The Philippines, Bali, Hawaii, just about anywhere there were shells."

Dr No Ursula Andress
The Caribbean is a global crossroads, where all kinds of people and creatures end up: fishermen, professors, spies; British, American, Chinese; Black, White; crabs, spiders, even dragons. It's a peripheral place of retreat and relaxed retirement, with bridge at the exclusive Queens Club or a beer at the rundown seaside bar. But it's also central, a hub for the geopolitical machinations of Dr. No's ambitious counter-Empire.

For the film's plot pits one Empire against another, in the shadow of a third. It should be no surprise then that it is set at the site of Europe's original colonial expansion, and in the heart of what has always been a cauldron of rivalry between diverse imperial projects.

Dr No's SPECTRE organization is, as Sean Connery's Bond puts it, a vehicle for "world domination. The same old dream." But Bond should know more about this dream than most. His role, after all, is to continue the illusion of British global reach in the wake of the loss of Empire. For the film came out during the heyday of decolonization, and indeed the year of its release, 1962, was also the year that Jamaica left behind crown control and became an independent republic. Soon all the flunkeys in Government House would be put out to seed, getting slowly sozzled over martinis at the Queens Club.

And the real threat to British influence, perilously maintained by its secret service, a few high-tech gadgets, and lone individuals such as Commander Bond, is less an apocryphal underground organization such as SPECTRE than the new Empire whose shadow looms large over Dr. No, personified in the figure of Felix Leiter, CIA agent around town. The British presence in the Caribbean is but a colonial relic, military attachés in khaki short trousers and all. The real power in the region is now the United States.

Hence the significance of the film's final scene. Having dispatched Dr. No and his nefarious sub-maritime base, Bond and Andress's Honey Ryder find themselves stranded at sea, their fuel exhausted. Along comes Leiter, who seems to have commandeered a British naval vessel, to the rescue. Bond insouciantly enquires "Well, well, what's the matter, do you need help?" But the joke hardly hides the real relations of power here.

Dr No final sceneAnd when subsequently, in a further act of rather futile resistance, Bond releases the line with which Leiter's boat is towing his own, his victory is at best Pyrrhic: he may have the girl, and so salvaged some British pride, but he's still going nowhere fast, stuck in the middle of the Caribbean.

YouTube link: the final scene.

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Tycoon posterWhen Hollywood sends its stars down to Latin America, they typically have to face one or other of two challenges: cultural difference or natural indifference. In Tycoon, megastar John Wayne has to face both, albeit only one at a time.

Wayne plays Johnny Munroe, an engineer leading the effort to blast a tunnel through an Andean mountain so that a railroad can reach the mines owned by local tycoon Frederick Alexander. For the first half of the movie, we see Johnny as a happy-go-lucky guy, who likes a drink and a night out on the local town with the other ex-pat Americans who make up his team. During one such bacchanal, hungover or still drunk on the Sunday morning, he notices a beautiful young woman on her way to church, and follows along. It turns out that he's chasing the tycoon's daughter, Maura, and Johnny's forced to learn the complex rules for courting such a high-class Latin gal.

Unsurprisingly, our carousing hero breaks these rules as often as not, and the courtship is brought to a rather abrupt end when he and Maura are discovered to have spent the night at a local Inca ruin, having got lost in the jungle en route back to town. Local tradition, it seems, demands that a couple caught in such a compromising position have immediately to enter into a shotgun wedding. So Maura goes off to live with her new husband at the engineer's camp high in the mountains, but her father's dislike of the set-up follows her there and determines the shift in the film's tone and theme.

The second half of the movie is a study in stubbornness. Johnny and his father-in-law are solidly set against each other: Alexander determines to turn down all his engineer's requests, and to make his work increasingly difficult; the son-in-law in turn refuses ever to back down. But stubbornest of all is the mountain through which the railroad is to run. For all the rhythmic sequence of blasts that punctuate the action, and the ever-present labor that goes on night and day, rockfalls and finally a fatality mean that the tunnel is abandoned. "You can't drive through this crazy mountain." But the alternative, taking the line around a pass and building a bridge across a narrow gorge, is equally risky, especially at the breakneck pace that Munroe insists on keeping.

Under increasing pressure, Johnny throws himself into his work, abandons his young wife, turns on his former friends, and becomes an increasingly tyrannical and insensitive overseer. Repulsed by this cruel and indifferent and utterly masculine world ("What's wrong with this place?" "I hate it." "That's because you are a woman"), Maura returns to her father, who feels that his original displeasure towards her husband is proved right, according to the adage that Latin America's stubborn nature, indifferent to human attempts to change it, reveals the truth of human personality: "Put a man in the jungle and you will discover what his real nature is. The veneer wears pretty thin."

So Tycoon brings together two rather contrasting versions of Latin America: cultural adornment on the one hand, and unadorned nature on the other. The film's failure (it was a box office disappointment given that it was studio RKO's most expensive movie to date) perhaps stems from its inability to resolve that tension, or even really to acknowledge it. In the end, Johnny proves himself with his personal courage in the face of impending natural disaster as a storm surge threatens to topple the half-completed bridge, and he and Maura reconcile though it's not entirely clear or convincing why.

For most of the film, Wayne's character is shadowed by a young double, a local boy called "chico" who tells his friends to call him Johnny Munroe, and that he too is an engineer driving a railroad across the cordillera. But this conceit fades away as it becomes clear that chico has little or nothing to imitate: the irony is that Hollywood's leading man, John Wayne the archetypal male action hero, is here purely reactive, simply a function of the challenges he is posed. There's no consistency to his character; he is as hollow as the mountain is solid, as bland as the culture he faces is complex.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I've managed to amass quite a library of material for this project, but there are a few films I'd still like to get hold of. They include:
  • any silent era "greaser" films such as The Greaser's Revenge and Tony the Greaser
  • Lupe Velez's "Mexican Spitfire" movies
  • Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
  • Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971)
  • Lúcia Murat's Olhar Estrangeiro (2006)

If anyone can help out with these, I'd be most grateful.

And for me as much as anything, some video-only releases I'd like to see on DVD, though there are many more...
  • Green Mansions (1959)
  • The Honorary Consul (1983)
  • Amazon (1990)
  • At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991)


The Battle at Elderbush Gulch

It's worth noting that in D W Griffith's early Western, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, it's the Mexican who saves the day, by riding for reinforcements to save the embattled community of white settlers. Not that his efforts, which lead to his near-fatal exhaustion, are much recognized.

Meanwhile the Native Americans, by contrast, are shown as pretty much unadulterated savages: with a fondness for dogmeat, even to the extent of wanting to chow down on a pair of orphans' favorite pets, and with an unmitigated desire for vengeance at any and every turn.

Fortunately, when the cavalry arrive, summoned by the Mexican's epic ride, peace is restored and even the pooches are safe.


Monday, September 24, 2007

"Pluto and the Armadillo"

Pluto poster"Pluto and the Armadillo" was, apparently, intended as a sequence within Saludos Amigos, but ended up as a stand-alone short. And indeed it follows the same pattern as the feature-length movie, with its educational pretext (we're told how to pronounce "armadillo," for instance), but above all in that it shows a Disney regular interacting with a Disneyfied representative of Latin America's native fauna.

Mickey and Pluto are on a fifteen-minute stopover in Belén, Brazil, and playing on the airport tarmac with a ball that they've brought along. Mickey throws the ball long, and Pluto has to follow it into the nearby jungle, where he comes across an armadillo who, rolled up to protect herself, looks exactly like the imported rubber plaything. Hilarity ensues as first Pluto cannot believe his eyes in the face of this moving double of his own toy, then is gradually seduced by the cute face that emerges, before losing his rag and bursting the ball with his teeth. Disconsolate at the thought that he has killed his new Latin playmate, he reconciles with the creature when he realizes his mistake, and then both Pluto and the armadillo are dragged into the departing plane by Mickey.

So Pluto exchanges a bouncy ball for a live-wire, Samba-dancing armadillo. What's interesting here is the play of similarity and difference. From one aspect, when the armadillo is rolled up in defense, the toy and the animal are indistinguishable. But on closer inspection, and given a little bit of patience on the "turista americano"'s part, the armadillo reveals its distinctive rhythms, winning grin, and playful desire to be an active part of the game rather than mere plaything. And as Mickey scoops his charge up at the film's end, the same mistake and the same transformation are repeated: indistinguishable plaything becomes player with a mind of her own, albeit not exactly on her own terms. After all, the armadillo had never asked to be whisked away from Belén by air.

Pluto stillAs always, there's little in the way of ideology at play: in a whistlestop pause on the South American continent, the Mouse machine grabs a Latin playmate, livelier and more fun than the mass-produced plaything he leaves in tatters on the jungle floor, and the onward voyage is sure to be full of incident as a result.

Bonus link: the entire cartoon is available at ManiaTV!

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

For the Common Defense!

For the Common Defense! is a short and rather frantic tale of espionage and dodgy dealing in wartime Latin America.

Presented as a dramatized true story, and introduced by a man who it is claimed is a subprefect from the Chilean Bureau of Investigations, the film's blatantly propagandistic motives depend upon generating some verisimilitude. At the same time, however, all its conventions are taken pretty much directly from film noir. A criminal on the lam and hiding down South from his disreputable past up North is trapped by German and Japanese agents into taking a cargo of counterfeit currency up to Colombia. He's found out and the plot is ultimately foiled thanks to the smooth collaboration between Chilean, US, and Colombian police services.

Hence the moral of the story: crime doesn't pay; and hemispheric cooperation will "ultimately smash and obliterate any foreign criminals who may try to undermine our liberty and our way of life."

But the demands of entertainment and the demands of propaganda are at some odds. Indeed, the propaganda message is somewhat incoherent and ill-focussed: the criminal here is not, after all, "foreign"; and it's not at all clear to whom the film is addressed. After all, the US public were no doubt already alert to be suspicious of Germans named Adolf who praise the news of Japan's Pearl Harbor strikes. Perhaps the real message is that if you try to escape the law by fleeing to Latin America, you may wind up with a stickier end than that prescribed by any US courthouse. So Latin America is not the safe haven it appears: the long arm of the law reaches even down to Chile, and there people are likely to shoot first and ask questions later.

At the same time, we can't help but feel some sympathy for Dutch Mullner, aka James Buckley, the criminal protagonist. He did after all first get angry with Adolf the photographic assistants' anti-American sentiments. And then he tried to refuse the mission that the Axis agents pressed upon him. Indeed, if the film were much longer it might become a full-blooded noir vehicle, in which ambivalence would dominate over the cut-and-dried message that the War Department otherwise wanted to put across.

So this is a curtailed movie, whose Latin Americanism is cut short just as it threatens to get going. And this in itself says something about the ways in which filmic Latin Americanism subverts even the most insistent of official discourses.

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Vera Cruz

In "Foreign Intervention and the American Western", DVD Savant argues that:
The subgenre of Westerns about gun-toting Americans adventuring in Mexico can be seen as an ever-changing record of U.S. attitudes toward U.S. military intervention overseas, our real "foreign policy," as it were. Nothing defines Americans better than how they comport themselves when off U.S. soil.
I agree, obviously enough, with the thrust of this comment. I'd only add that it's not just Westerns and not just movies set in Mexico that reveal something important about the United States. But perhaps it's true that Mexican-set Westerns show a particular concern with the morality (or otherwise) of violent intervention.

Vera Cruz posterIt's generally acknowledged that Vera Cruz is a transitional Western: though it is apparently structured by the clear-cut "white hat / black hat" morality of its predecessors, with its hero Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) playing against anti-hero Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), it consistently threatens to reveal a much more cynical world outlook.

Everyone here is double (or even triple) crossing everyone else. Violence is everywhere, and seldom if ever redeeming. And Trane only reluctantly, and not entirely convincingly, opts for principle over personal gain in the film's final frames. Indeed, in killing Erin in a climactic shoot-out, Trane remains within the logic of dog-eat-dog trust-nobody self-reliance that Erin himself had preached, even if he first gives Erin a fighting chance and then throws Erin's gun away as if in disgust of what he himself has been led to do.

Moreover Lancaster's utterly amoral Erin is easily the most attractive character among this den of brigands and traitors: his astonishing white-toothed grin is undeniably seductive, and demonstrates his personal joie de vivre in marked contrast with the weary mien of Cooper's Trane, a man marked by his participation on the losing side of the US civil war.

The other figures in a plot set during the Mexican rebellion against Emperor Maximilian include a French Marquis, his squeeze the unreliable Countess Duvarre, the peasant thief Nina, and rebel General Ramírez, among others. All have their eyes on $3,000,000 in gold coins that is hidden in the Countess's carriage. The subterfuge of hiding it there is perfectly transparent almost from the outset: Trane and Erin soon note that the lady's carriage is much heavier than the accompanying wagon laden with supplies. Moreover, the American mercenaries scarcely hide the fact that what they are after is money, and they'll fight for whomever offers them the fattest wage packet. There's not much ideology here, except for some vague appeals to the notion that the Mexican people might ultimately have the right to rebel against French oppression.

Vera Cruz still
But the Mexican characters are never fleshed out, a fact that caused plenty of consternation in Mexico at the time, leading to harsh scrutiny of the subsequent production, likewise south of the border, of The Magnificent Seven. Ironically, however, it's Vera Cruz whose politics are more radical. The Magnificent Seven still holds out hope for liberal interventionism. Released the year of the United Fruit-instigated and CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala, Vera Cruz argues that it's hard, cold cash that matters most when the USA embarks on military adventures abroad.

YouTube link: the film's opening titles.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Now, Voyager

Now Voyager poster"How much do you know about South America?" asks Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) of her psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) late on in Now, Voyager. And of course Charlotte's question is not geographical but psychological: she is talking about her South America, where she had her first (and only) full experience of freedom, and wherein lies the key to her agonized state of mind in the latter stages of the film.

Now, Voyager is the story of a transformation, apparently of a liberation. When we first meet her, Charlotte is a spinster aunt who still lives in her family's imposing Boston mansion, utterly under the thumb of her tyrannical mother. Charlotte is the unwanted child, the ugly duckling, who exists only to serve her mother's every whim, and whose own desires are curtailed and repressed under the weight of family and class expectations. Things are now coming to a crisis, and psychiatrist Jaquith diagnoses a nervous breakdown. As a first stage in her cure, Charlotte is to be separated from her mother and taken to the sanatorium that Jaquith runs in rural Vermont.

At the sanatorium, Charlotte gradually recovers her sense of her self. But she is terrified by the prospect of returning home once her treatment is over. So Jaquith and Charlotte's sister-in-law Lisa conspire to send her on a cruise to South America.

A cruise is always a good site for retreat and recuperation: it involves both structured social interaction (dinners, dances, shuffleboard) and closed cabin doors, obscure corners to which to escape. Charlotte's one previous taste of freedom and desire had likewise been on board ship, steaming up the coast of Africa. But there her mother's presence had put an end to her adventures. In Olive Higgins Prouty's novel on which Now, Voyager is closely based, Charlotte's post-sanatorium voyage takes her to the Mediterranean. But it is more than fitting that the film adaptation should send her instead towards Rio.

En route, Charlotte meets fellow traveler Jerry Durrance, who further encourages her to feel at home in the borrowed sophistication that Jaquith and Lisa have forced upon her. She takes on Jerry's nickname for her, Camille, and flourishes on the care and attention of this kind-hearted stranger. Stranded in Rio for five days, after a car accident brought about by the only actual Latin American we meet, an incompetent taxi driver named Giuseppe, Charlotte and Jerry's love blossoms.

In Brazil with Now Voyager
The catch, however, is that Jerry is a married man. Ironically his wife is described to sound very much like Charlotte's own mother: tyrannical and domineering, a scourge upon her youngest daughter. But Jerry cannot bring himself to leave her. So when he and Charlotte part, as Charlotte's plane takes her to Buenos Aires to catch up with her ship, they agree that this must be the end of their romance.

Back in the United States, Charlotte comes to terms with her mother and maintains her independent ways. Soon she is the object of fascination and admiration, and receives a marriage proposal from an eminently eligible bachelor, who is likewise a scion of excellent Boston stock. Yet Charlotte can never quite let go of her feelings for Jerry, continuing to wear the corsages of camellias that he sends her, and when her former lover returns on the scene she breaks off her engagement.

But instead of pairing up with the love of her life, Charlotte enters into a rather bizarre arrangement whereby she becomes mother to the child that Jerry's wife has neglected, but not for that Jerry's wife. Indeed, surely this resolution is at least as unhealthily neurotic as the circumstances in which we first saw her. In the transformation from ugly duckling to sophisticated girl around town, it is not that any repression has lifted: rather that she has now taken on the responsibility and the burden of her own repression. Her desires are no longer repressed by her (now dead) mother. She herself chooses to keep quiet about what happened in South America. She has internalized the injunctions that derive from the very same class and family expectations that her mother had worked so hard to impart.

For in the end what happens in South America has to stay in South America: Rio is the receptacle for unconscious desires that can be expressed only in heavily sublimated form in the North, only in the surely unhealthy symptom by which Charlotte finds herself in bed embracing another woman's child, while colluding in both her mother's and her lover's over-riding adherence to the façade of social respectability.

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Tumbleweeds posterTumbleweeds is the last of silent Western star William S. Hart's 65 movies. As such, it encodes a double nostalgia. Its topic is the 1889 land rush in which homesteaders moved in on the "Cherokee Strip," an event that for Hart meant "the end of the West" (as his character in the movie puts it) as the cowpokes had to move out for the incoming settlers. But as Hart makes clear in his spoken prologue to the film's 1939 re-issue, the end of the West stands in for what he sees as the end of the Western: the end of his own cinematic career, but also the end of realism in Western cinema and the arrival of populism, comic devices, and epic metaphors.

Ironically, and despite the legal battles that Hart undertook to keep his vision intact, Tumbleweeds follows the pattern of the new-style Western rather than the old style whose demise it marks. Hart's character, Don Carver, is supplied with a comic sidekick in Lucien Littlefield: the two are ranchers who have to move out with the arrival of the homesteaders. The film's scale is certainly epic, and both imagery and plot are littered with overt metaphor: in the film's opening scene, for instance, Carver rescues two wolf cubs who are defenceless now their mother has been poisoned, just as the cowpokes likewise have lost their source of life and nourishment. And yet in the end the movie sides with the homesteaders, in suitably populist style: both of the cowboy "tumbleweeds" find themselves hitched to women and accept a fixed claim on bounded territory.

Yet there is a point near the very end of the film at which such a homely resolution still seems in doubt. Under suspicion of grabbing land illegally and spurned by the woman he loves, Carver declares that he'll move South: "Women aren't reliable--cows are--that's why I'm headin' for South America where there's millions of 'em." In the end, Littlefield's character, Kentucky Rose, intervenes to ensure that Carver doesn't head towards what Rose terms "South Ameriky." But Latin America haunts this film as the option not taken, as a space in which the deterritorializing instincts of the Old West continue to dominate, where the tumbleweeds continue to roam.

Latin America becomes the last frontier, and if we follow Hart's overall metaphor through, it becomes too perhaps a cinematic frontier: an option the movies could take to avoid being tied down and domesticated.

Tumbleweeds still
YouTube link: Hart's prologue to the 1939 re-issue.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

The Heart of Texas Ryan

The Heart of Texas Ryan is an early Tom Mix Western, in which Mix plays Jack "Single-Shot" Parker, a ranch-hand who loves getting into a scrape, and Bessie Eyton plays the eponymous Texas Ryan, the ranch-owner's daughter who has been at college somewhere back East for the two years before the story opens.

In Texas's absence, Parker has only had her photograph for female company; and though he has never met her, he has fallen in love with her via the image. At one point, Parker even shows the photograph to his horse, with whom like all cowboys he has a peculiarly intimate relationship, as though to assure either himself or the horse that his real love object in fact has two legs rather than four.

But trouble attends Texas's return to the state whose name she bears. The local Marshall is in cahoots with a Mexican cattle-rustling band led by one José Mandero. Parker gets into a scrap with the Marshall, and so his cards are marked. But in any case enmity was around the corner as it turns out that among Texas's many suitors is not only the feeble old white man, Senator Murray Allison, but also the Mexican jefe Mandero himself.

Predictably enough, therefore, "Single-Shot" has to prove himself worthy of the only white woman in town by usurping an ineffective oligarchy and also beating off the criminal influence from the other side of the border. All this while at the same time showing himself worthy of civilized company, by learning to use brains rather than bullets, as the college girl instructs.

So Parker matches subterfuge (cattle rustling and town hall corruption) with subterfuge, infiltrating himself into the Mexican camp by pretending to be one of their sentinels. And the alternative to brute force turns out to be paying up the ransoms that the Mexicans demand: in a tit-for-tat plot, first Texas is ransomed for $2,000 and later she in turn ransoms Parker for the same sum, just minutes away from his impending execution in Mexico itself.

So it's not as though the Mexicans are simply brute savages. They are fully paid-up members of a monetary economy, who happily give up their hostages when paid the price that they (and everyone else, it seems) consider just. Moreover, the Mexican gang makes use of an automobile just as do the gringo rescuers, and even their stylized dress is not all that different from the equally distinctive cowboy outfit sported by Mix (even as yet without the latter's trademark hat). No wonder that these are people that you can in fact do business with.

But there is an ambivalence here: Parker doesn't fully obey the injunction to prefer brains over brawn. Whether that's because it's him or the Mexicans who are still not fully civilized remains unclear at the film's rather rushed conclusion. For the important thing is that the heart of Texas Ryan belongs to "Single-Shot," at least for the time being.

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[A service announcement...]

This blog now has a new name (though I'm not yet 100% happy about the subtitle) and shortly will have a new lease of life, as I will be adding a whole number of new entries over the next few months.

[Here ends the service announcement.]